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Don't Tell Me to “Think Positive” When I am Stressed

Transitions are hard. My family and I are in the midst of a major one right now as we move from the Philippines to Maryland, USA, our fourth intercontinental move in eight years. It’s all dismayingly familiar – starting everything from scratch with jobs, housing, schools, friends. Endless decisions, constant unknowns, frequent high stress. For trauma survivors, stress is a major trigger of reactions such as fear, feelings of helplessness and reappearance of emotions related to past traumas that may have receded with time but now make a reappearance, sometimes stronger than ever before. In reference to the Expressive Trauma Integration (ETI) model I work with, stress often creates a sense of regression to stages we thought we had left behind, including an unwilling “visit” to the “Withdrawal” stage.

Please don’t tell me to "trust the process" or "think positive"Generally speaking, I don't like suggestions such as "think positive", "trust the process", "be in the here and now". Even though offered with kind intentions, in high stress I am allergic to such advice. As a trauma survivor, I have lived much of my life feeling deeply unsafe. Fear follows me like a shadow. I have to work hard to coexist with this constant companion. Advice to ignore it is of no value.

Coexist with fear

In fact, I see now that learning how to manage fear has been an important part of my journey. Like most children living in the presence of trauma, I wasn’t aware of the possibility of choosing or managing a response to fear – I simply struggled to cope with circumstances and I wanted the fear to go away. Only later in life did I learn that being courageous doesn't require avoiding or removing fear, it means choosing to act even while being afraid.

The thought that made a difference

A thought that works well for me and for many of my clients is, "Yes, I had a traumatic experience(s) in which I felt like I had come to my end, but I survived. True, many times it still feels unsafe and it could happen again. But I know that I survived once and I will most likely be able to survive again." So this is what I keep on telling myself. In this present time of transition, I am still trying to maintain my self-care regime, but losing daily routines and squeezing the physical foundation of life down to the contents of a suitcase makes that hard. So in spite of it all, what can be done to cope with times of high stress transition? For myself, and with my clients, I work on resilience awareness tools:

- Lower the volume of that inner voice that demands things to go smoothly and for me to feel great. I remind myself that our circumstances make it inevitable that many things will be unusually difficult and emotionally challenging, but that this is temporary.

- Use the “reset” exercise I mentioned in my last post.

- Work on restructuring of thoughts (Johnson et al., 2009). I direct my thoughts – in those moments when I can remember to do so – to imagining a variety of responses to the situation that is stressing me. One can use expressive arts to do that, visuals, drawing, creating movement that expresses a variety of constructive responses to the stressful thought/situation, etc. These activities de-escalate the response of the nervous system to stress. Like building a muscle, the results are cumulative and the more you practice them, the easier and faster you will be able to diffuse your stress.

- Individualized Sustainability Plan (ISP) use stress management and self-care tools. Whereas the previous strategy is a targeted, often repetitive response to a certain thought, ISP provide a long-term strategy to increase resiliency. They may include routines of progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing, dancing, movement, playing music, drawing, other hobbies and so forth.It is crucial to choose these with care – not to take someone else’s laundry list of self-care but to reflect on the particular circumstances of the present time and to ask “Which options will connect me to a sense of life and hope and of those, which ones are realistically do-able in this time?”

What do you do to cope with the stress of transitions?

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References: Johnson, D. R., Lahad, M., & Gray, A. (2009). Creative therapies for adults. In Foa, E. B., Keane, T. M., Friedman, M. J., & Cohen, J. A. (Eds.). (2008). Effective treatments for PTSD: practice guidelines from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. Guilford Press.p. 479-490.

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